Main Man

Michael Hofmann

  • Walking Possession: Essays and Reviews 1968-1993 by Ian Hamilton
    Bloomsbury, 302 pp, £20.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1712 6
  • Gazza Italia by Ian Hamilton
    Granta, 188 pp, £5.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 14 014073 5

When you get onto the big wheel of writing (or the little wheels within wheels of poetry), it seems clear to me that the people you look to and feel an affinity for are not – to begin with, anyway – the ones who get on immediately before and after you, still less the ones who’ve been on for ages – you want their seats – but the half-strangers you see through the struts half a cycle (half a generation) away, falling as you rise, rising as you fall. There were three poets I had my eye on – probably all appalled to be mentioned in each other’s company, and by me: Joseph Brodsky, Tom Paulin and, most intimately though I knew him least, Ian Hamilton. When I sent him a copy of my first book, I realised I’d even purloined his initials for my title.

I wasn’t of an age to have been reading, never mind submitting to, his magazines, The Review and The New Review, but when I started publishing around 1980, I had his book of poems The Visit (1970) on permanent loan from the English Faculty Library at Cambridge. It would fall due and I would renew it. I must have read it quite literally hundreds of times – and everyone else not at all! ‘No one shaved, and only the turtle washed,’ as Lowell said of the turtle in the bathtub. I discovered Hamilton, I suppose, and should explain, in the place of honour at the end of A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry, second edition. When the time finally came for me to leave the rocky bosom of Cambridge, I was in a dilemma over the book. I couldn’t live without it. Finally I said I’d lost it, paid the ten pound penalty, and thought I’d got away with murder: no doubt George Washington would have behaved differently. Now I’m the proud owner of four or five copies (whenever I come across one, I buy it), and moreover Faber had the grace to publish an enlarged version in 1988, Fifty Poems, so the library will be back in business too. Greetings, borrowers.

What I admire – not the word – about the poems is their intensity. John Berryman once said: write as short as you can, in order, of what matters. Surely no one – least of all Berryman himself – can have fulfilled the terms of that prescription as scrupulously as Hamilton. The majority of the poems are generated by one of two subjects: a wife’s mental illness and a father’s death from cancer. The few exceptions, just as sombre, are barely to be distinguished. There is something terrible and heroic in this narrow focus, in the way that these few poems, produced over many years, should have settled so close by one another, with their themes of break-up and breakdown, their shattered atmosphere, their identical reference points of hands and heads and hair and flowers and grass and snow and shadow. That ‘silence on other subjects’ that Brecht mentioned in a quite different context, is part of the effect. Nothing else, Hamilton implies, can have any being next to such losses. Each individual poem is pruned back to an austere and beautiful knot of pain. Poetry, by his practice of it, is not craftsmanship or profession, but catastrophe. I can’t, in general terms, think of any better way for a poem to be. Most poems have a hard time answering the question: ‘Is this really necessary?’ Not his.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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